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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (‘Enigma’) (1899) [32:17]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, Op. 32 (1916) [49:38]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. 2013/17, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway. DSD
BIS BIS2068 SACD [82:42]

Andrew Litton has performed and recorded quite an amount of English music over the years but, to the best of my knowledge, the two works gathered together on this hybrid SACD are new to his discography. He has had a long relationship with the Bergen Philharmonic, serving as their Music Director from 2003 to 2015; since then he has been their Music Director laurate. So, the present recording of the ‘Enigma’ Variations was made towards the end of his tenure as MD with the Holst being set down during one of his return trips to Norway as a guest conductor.

In committing to disc the ‘Enigma’ Variations Litton pits himself against some formidable competition, not least the very different classic accounts by Barbirolli with the Philharmonia (revew) and Boult with the LSO (review). I decided, though, to make my comparisons with a more recent and very fine version by Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé (review). Incidentally, Elder’s disc has additional interest for Elgarians in that it offers as an appendix the original version of the finale of ‘Enigma’. This is shorter by 96 bars than the version that we know so well. Apparently, after the premiere A E Jaeger suggested to Elgar that the ending as originally composed was too abrupt. Elgar wasn’t happy but added a further 96 bars – and an optional organ part. How right he was to heed Jaeger’s advice, as Elder’s recording of the original version clearly demonstrates.

I like Litton’s ‘Enigma’ very much. He lays out the theme expressively, as does Elder, and there’s tenderness in his account of ‘C.A.E.’ though I think his delivery of the variation’s climax is slightly exaggerated, a trap which Elder avoids. On the other hand, Litton moves the music of this variation on just a fraction more. Litton does ‘R.B.T.’ well and I very much enjoyed ‘R.P.A.’. Here the sonorous seriousness comes over really well, enhanced by the richness of the BIS recording. Litton brings charm to ‘Ysobel’ while ‘Troyte’ is explosive – the timpani are superb. In ‘Troyte’ Elder is just as successful but I think the BIS sound gives Litton a slight edge.

The ‘W.N.’ variation is rightly described in the notes as “elegant”. That comes over in Litton’s performance, as does the affection in the music. ‘Nimrod’ receives a broad, dedicated performance in Bergen – yet again I admired the richness of both the playing and the recorded sound. Litton builds the music expertly so that the full orchestral statement of the melody is truly noble and the variation achieves a majestic climax. Elder is daringly hushed at the start of ‘Nimrod’. As it unfolds, his account of the music glows; he and his marvellous orchestra make the piece expand so naturally and the performance makes one appreciate just how much Elgar valued Jaeger’s friendship. Good though Litton is, it was Elder who really moved me with his ‘Nimrod’. By the way, neither conductor treats the piece as an elegy, thank goodness. Litton’s performance of ‘Dorabella’ is very delicate and the charming little hesitations in the music are made to sound just right. ‘B.G.N.’ is very expressive; the Bergen principal cellist offers lovely playing. In the finale Elder adopts a surprisingly steady pace at first while Litton’s way with the music is more “conventionally” swift. In their different ways both conductors offer bold, confident accounts of the finale. Some may feel that Litton is just a fraction too broad at the end and that he exaggerates both the subito piano/crescendo on the final chord and then the length of that chord. Those, though, are small points and overall the splendour of the performance and sound makes for a very tempting proposition. There’s no question of the authority of Sir Mark Elder’s performance. His recording was made live in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in 2002 and returning to it for the purposes of this comparison I was struck by the quality of Simon Eadon’s engineering. In the last analysis, the lustrous, detailed BIS recording, engineered by Jens Braun gives Litton a sonic edge but the Elder CD is not put in the shade by the BIS SACD. As to the performances, I admire both Litton and Elder very much.

Turning to The Planets, I was interested to compare Litton’s recent SACD recording with a rather earlier effort. This is the recording made as long ago as 1970 by DG with the Boston Symphony and William Steinberg, which was reissued not long ago as a BD-A, as well as on a remastered CD (review). I couldn’t resist making comparisons also with the recording made in 1978 and 1979 by Sir Adrian Boult and the LPO for EMI (review). Boult carried a special authority in this score since it was he who, in the composer’s words, “first caused The Planets to shine in public.” That was at a semi-private performance in London’s Queen’s Hall in September 1918. The Boult recording is an analogue affair, set down in the famed Kingsway Hall, London. The recording was in the safe hands of Christopher Bishop (producer) and Christopher Parker (engineer) and the results they achieved are still mightily impressive four decades later.

The two recordings on this BIS disc were made some four years apart and different engineers were involved - Jens Braun for the Elgar and Andreas Ruge and Matthias Spitzbarth for the Holst. The results are excellent in both cases, though I had the impression that on the Holst recording the (much larger) orchestra is positioned a little more closely to the microphones as compared with the Elgar. If I’m correct then I should hasten to add that the Holst recording certainly isn’t too close; there’s an excellent sense of front-to-back and left-to-right perspectives and though the recording is superbly detailed it also conveys a thrilling “big picture”. There’s also a very good sense of the ambience of the hall, as was also the case in the Elgar.

Right from the start of ‘Mars’ one is aware of detail: the col legno strings, the soft tam-tam all make their mark subtly but tellingly; the sound has terrific definition. Litton adopts a pace that expresses urgency: it’s fast but not too fast. Boult, by contrast, is appreciably steadier; his is a patient, inexorable view. Steinberg is significantly faster than either Boult or Litton. His strikingly swift performance is absolutely gripping; indeed, it has animal urgency, particularly when the 5/4 music resumes after the 5/2 interlude. I didn’t think anyone could outdo the urgency of Solti’s 1978 LPO recording for Decca (425 152-2) – also made in the Kingsway Hall and expertly engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson – but Steinberg manages it. The 1970 DG sound has come up very well indeed on BD-A but it sounds somewhat bright when compared to the fuller, richer analytical BIS sound. Reverting to Litton, his performance is gripping and very powerful and the superb realism of the BIS recording enhances the performance immeasurably – the percussion is thrilling. I was astonished, though, at how well the Boult sounds. It’s no less distinguished as a performance and the LPO plays really well for him; the end of the movement is almost as cataclysmic as the Litton.

‘Venus’ is very lovely in this Bergen performance. The Bergen Philharmonic’s playing is ultra-refined and it’s reported marvellously by the engineers. ‘Mercury’ is really nimble and the BIS recording shows off the different layers of Holst’s orchestration. Boult is just as dexterous, even if his sound can’t quite match the level of sophistication we experience in the BIS recording.

Litton makes the opening of ‘Jupiter’ festive and jovial. The big tune (3:06) is nobly sung but there are a couple of details that trouble me. At 3:50, as the big tune unfolds, Litton suddenly reduces the volume and then builds the sound back up. Earlier, at 1:04 he slows down significantly for the start of the second melodic idea (on horns) and then accelerates away. The effect is repeated, even more strongly, when this idea is heard again in the second half of the movement. Both of these seem to me to be fussy interventions from the podium, Boult indulges in neither device, thank goodness. In his hands the big tune is as staunch and steady as English oak and the flow that he achieves in this memorable melody is just right. This movement is one where Boult emerges as the clear winner. Steinberg does ‘Jupiter’ well, too. He has a Boult-like directness and the vivid BD-A sound seems to leap out of the speakers.

In ‘Saturn’ Litton adopts a measured approach, marginally more so than Boult, but he’s nowhere near as spacious as Solti who, I think, is too slow. Again, Litton’s recording serves him very well; all the various subdued strands of sound can be heard. The slow processional is excellent, the steady tread adroitly judged. The Bergen Philharmonic exhibits superb dynamic control and the music is impressively built until it reaches a towering climax (4:40) which is imperiously conveyed by the recording. At the end (from 6:42) the quiet washes of sound are most impressive - I love the fantastic soft bass foundation to the orchestral sound. This is a very conspicuous success. Steinberg impresses too. His account of the movement is spacious and controlled and his recording has excellent definition. He’s a bit swifter than Litton but his climax still has terrific power. The disappointment is that in the mysterious closing pages some instruments, notably the harps, are too closely heard and this robs the performance of the mystery that Litton and the BIS engineers achieve.

Litton’s account of ‘Uranus’ benefits, not for the first time, from terrifically defined orchestral playing. The brilliance of Holst’s scoring is readily apparent. The climax (4:04) is brazen and its successor (5:00) even more so. Boult’s recording is admirable but it can’t compete with the sonic splendour of the BIS. Furthermore, though his performance is good his steadier pace means that the interpretation sounds sober by the side of Litton. The amazingly inventive ‘Neptune’ really benefits from the BIS engineering – and from the expertly controlled playing of the Bergen orchestra. We hear marvellous shimmering detail and the playing is wonderfully light and subtle. When the distant female voices enter (4:08) the sound is ideally otherworldly. The ending is marvellously achieved: the voices fade beyond our ken. If you strain to hear them then they are finally lost in the ether at 7:22. I can’t readily recall hearing the receding voices better managed on disc. Boult is not quite as measured in his pacing. The ladies’ voices (from around 3:00) are very successfully recorded. They fade from earshot rather more quickly than is the case on the BIS disc. Steinberg’s is a good performance per se but here the relative closeness of his recorded sound rather works against him. Everything is a bit too close and ‘present’; as a result, the ethereal magic of the Litton account is missing. His voices, though good, as not as successfully managed as on the BIS disc and they fade fairly quickly.

So, to complement his excellent ‘Enigma’ Andrew Litton offers a terrific account of The Planets. There are one or two small interpretative question marks but these are as nothing in the overall picture. The Bergen Philharmonic’s playing is superb and thanks to BIS engineering we can hear it to maximum advantage. I listened to this disc as a stereo SACD and was seriously impressed: goodness knows how good a result you’ll achieve if you’re set up for surround sound! Philip Borg-Wheeler’s notes are very good but I think he’s not quite right in saying that the second complete performance of The Planets (after Boult’s 1918 premiere). was given in Birmingham by Appleby Matthews in October 1920. He’ll be referring to a performance by the then recently formed City of Birmingham Orchestra. That was a daring choice for an orchestra that first came together only a few weeks earlier but I think I’m right in saying that on that occasion they omitted ‘Uranus’ and Neptune’. In his notes for the Boult recording Michael Kennedy asserts that the second complete performance was given by Albert Coates in November 1920.

Andrew Litton’s recording of The Planets now deserves to be counted among the primary recommendations for the work and his ‘Enigma’ is a fine achievement too.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: William Hedley ~ Robert Cummings

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